Cory Wallace has built a career on moving from one epic race to the next. The Kona Endurance Team rider has been on the move the last few months, from the Mongolia Bike Challenge, to the Tour of the Dragon, Tour De Timor and then the Hero MTB Himalaya… and he’s not done yet.
Returning to India for the 12th edition of the 9 day Hero MTB Himalaya mountain bike race was a last minute decision and turned into a grand adventure. It’s a fairly big one with 8 stages, 600 km and 15000m of climbing in the foot hills of the Himalayas with a different campsite every night as the course traverses from Shimla to Dharmshela, the home of the Dalai Lama. Racing in 2014 the race was still in its development stages, but the organisers have been working hard and have created something special over in India
The local challenges of the Hero MTB Himalaya
Racing a bike in India is like trying to play a game of street hockey amongst a bunch of walkers, loose dogs and sporadic traffic. Large parts of the course were in the wilds of India but over here there are people and animals everywhere. The singletrack sections were rad as it made it a real mountain biker’s race but also led to some chaotic situations. We’d come across pack trains of mules, guys pushing rotti-tillers, packs of monkeys and almost everything else imaginable. The mules were a real problem and would always win as we’d try to get off the trail, either by clinging to a cliff edge or jumping into a rice paddy. The cows were also a pain as they are holy and walk around like they own the place, rarely moving out of the way. Next year I’ll be coming with an electric cow prodder.
Thankfully most the race was off the busy roads but at times we’d have sections of battling the traffic. This required full attention as the rules of the road only state that if you honk you can drive wherever you want and the bigger object has the right away. On a bike we had no horns and are pretty small so we are at the bottom end of the food chain.
Pedestrians were also obstacles walking down the middle of the road and running across streets without looking as everyone depends on the horns over here. We figured out that silence was the best bet as if we alarmed them we were coming they would start doing the squirrel zig zag. The real problems were the grass people though as they’d be carrying huge stacks of grass on there backs and if they heard us coming would try to turn around, often causing their loads of grass to come into our lane. A couple of riders hit the ditch hard because of this. Huge heards of goats and sheep would also slow our race down as it was like the parting of the sea as we’d slowly ride through them. There was never a dull moment!
On camp at the Hero MTB Himalaya
Camp life was sweet as we’d sit back eating different curries following the stages and listen to endless stories from the riders as they rolled into camp. Interacting with the curious locals was a highlight as the organisers had us visit 3 different schools during the race to deliver school supplies and promote sports, education and environmental protection. The Hero MTB Himalaya was part racing and part cultural immersion into one of the world’s most dynamic countries. The locals who primarily follow the Hindu religion were very welcoming and kept us entertained with their humour and way of going about life.
With lots of time to play with in camp it was nice to have such a good setup with food always available and lots of action going on. The Indians really like their noise and would blast the same songs over and over again through blown out speakers. We tried to put up with it but when it would come on at 6 in the morning or stay on late into the night a few of the riders started running around pulling cables and flipping switches. This turned into an amusing game as we’d then sit back and watch the young Indian camp staff run around trying to find the disconnection to their music. The race was comprised of foreigners from 14 different countries and a large local contingent. The local Indian riders were generally riding dodgy bikes but every year they are getting stronger and with the proper equipment and some outside guidance they will be ones to watch in the years to come.
Racing at the front of Hero MTB Himalaya
Racing wise it was a tough battle with top European marathon rider Andi Seewald, 7 time 24hr World Champ Jason English, American Thomas Turner and the Rocky boys Andreas and Manuel from Europe. The courses were solid with big climbs, sections of gnarly singletrack, and some epic views as we raced up and down mountains, across ridges and through tight river gorges. We raced hard but at the same time there was a mutual respect amongst us as we helped each other dodge cars, fend off dogs and stay out of trouble in the world’s 2nd most populous country with 1.3 billion inhabitants.
Managing to win the first stage I hung onto the leaders jersey for the first half of the race but would slowly run out of steam trying to battle off an insanely strong Andi Seewald. I was riding well but this guy was riding stronger then anyone I have seen since racing the World Marathon Champs in Italy in 2015. I’ll have to go back to the drawing board this winter and adjust a few things to get up to the level he was riding at. Coming in a bit fresher might also help turn the tables next time.
The Indians have created something special over here as this race has a heartbeat of its own and left most of us foreigner riders impressed and wanting more. Some riders complained about the singletrack being too gnarly, with a couple short hike a bike sections, but to me this was the highlight of the week as it really got us deep into the Indian countryside and tested our technical skills. The days were diverse and the memories of riding over 10 000 ft passes, across open ridge lines and through the depths of India will leave a lasting impression.
After a solid post race party with copious amounts of Indian food, local fruit wine and some deafening music, we were alerted the Dalai Lama had agreed to meet us at his temple up in Mcleod Ganji. Jason English was looking to ride early before his flight later that day so Thomas and I joined him and rode up to the Temple early in the morning. Not sure what to do with our bikes, one of the Dalai Lama’s guards asked me to bring my Kona Honzo inside as the Dalai Lama had never seen a bike of that quality in his temple.
There was about 25 of us from the race up there and when the Dalai Lama came out and we were treated to 7 minutes of our lives none of us will ever forget. The energy, humbleness and humour was amazing and we all truly felt we were in the presence of one of the greatest figures of our lives. It’s one hand shake I will never forget and the Kona Honzo is in awe as well.